How to Fight Interruptions

by Francisco Saez

This chapter is a free excerpt from The Pursuit of Mastery.

March 25, 2013

Today, our productivity is always threatened by the existence of constant interruptions that we cannot control. An interruption is anything that prevents you from starting and ending an important task. It is hard to do the important things and ignore the trivial when the universe is conspiring against you.

Some of the following tips for fighting interruptions may not initially please everybody. Some will think they are too heavy or not politically correct in some way. Others, in truth, actually feel comfortable with interruptions—they make them feel busy and release the pressure of having to do something more important. But if you are someone who thinks you could be doing better things when you are in a conversation or a situation that is going nowhere, read on.


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March 25, 2013

Today, our productivity is always threatened by the existence of constant interruptions that we cannot control. An interruption is anything that prevents you from starting and ending an important task. It is hard to do the important things and ignore the trivial when the universe is conspiring against you.

Some of the following tips for fighting interruptions may not initially please everybody. Some will think they are too heavy or not politically correct in some way. Others, in truth, actually feel comfortable with interruptions—they make them feel busy and release the pressure of having to do something more important. But if you are someone who thinks you could be doing better things when you are in a conversation or a situation that is going nowhere, read on.

Interruptions produced by synchronous means of communication are more difficult to manage. These are communications that take place in real time and that simultaneously involve various parties, as in a phone call or interpersonal conversation. However, in asynchronous communication, as in emails, the participating parties do not interact in real time, which means that responses do not occur immediately.

With this in mind, let’s see how we can face the major time stealers that plague our day-to-day lives.

E-mails

Managing emails so they will not cause interruptions is quite easy because, being an asynchronous method of communication, no one should expect you are going to answer right away, nor even in the same day.

  • Limit your email access to two or three times per day. The rest of the time, turn it off.
  • Mute email notifications. Do this on all your email programs, your computers, smartphones, and tablets.
  • Don’t check your email as the first task of the day. Do it after you complete your most important task. But what if there’s something urgent I need to know about? In all likelihood, it’s extremely rare that will ever be anything so urgent it can’t wait until 11am.

Phone calls

Phone calls are synchronous modes of communication and, therefore, count as true interruptions. Here, a good strategy is the one proposed by Tim Feriss in The 4-hour Workweek: have two telephones. A mobile phone for emergencies and another one (mobile or not) for your normal activity.

  • Mute the normal phone so you can use it as an asynchronous system. Calls will go to the voicemail, and as with emails, you can listen to them and take actions accordingly during your specially set aside two or three times of the day.
  • Ask people to only use your mobile number if there is a real urgency. When you answer, do not let them fall in trivial conversations—ask them to get straight to the point.
Meetings

Here the instruction is:

  • Avoid meetings. In my experience, they are rarely necessary and when they are, they do not require even half the time actually spent at them. Explain clearly to anyone who requests your presence that what you are doing is more important than the meeting. If there is no choice and holding a meeting is absolutely necessary, only the people directly involved in the matter should be requested, the topics should be clearly defined in advance, and a maximum duration should be set.
Assertiveness is your weapon

Curbing these interruptions isn’t easy. Not everyone will understand your reasons for limiting them at first, but it is your job to educate people around you to be more effective and efficient.

Assertiveness is an essential communication style to achieve your goals without harming anyone. It has to do with expressing your thoughts, feelings, ideas, and beliefs in a clear, direct, and balanced way—it is about defending your rights with no intention to attack others.

Assertive yet respectful communication is a skill that can be learned and improved. Its benefits, in addition to helping you be more productive, are many:

  • Your stress is reduced as you become more comfortable saying what you really think.
  • By deciding what to do and what not to do, you feel that it is you who controls your life.
  • You gain more time to do what matters, since you are able to say no to things that don’t bring any value to you.
  • Eventually, you will have better relationships with others. If your behavior in the past has been more passive than assertive, the change may not please everyone in your life. In the end, though, you will earn their respect.
  • By saying what you think and not what others want to hear, you will reinforce your own sense of self-esteem.
Conclusion

Since the vast majority of interruptions are non-urgent—although they want you to believe otherwise—you must encourage people to use, first the email, then the phone, and finally in-person meetings to communicate with you. When someone asks you for an in-person meeting, request him or her to send an email with the issues they want to discuss. You will be surprised at how many meetings can be avoided by simply sending back and forth a couple of clear and concise emails.

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